Eating a local diet, one where consumers subsist on food grown locally — often within 100 miles from the source — is no longer edgy or revolutionary. It’s common to find restaurants across the United States touting goods from local farms, proving that it is not difficult to eat abundantly but with a small carbon footprint.
Except, of course, if you live in Alaska. The unavailability of fresh produce during the long winters as well as the presumed unavailability of grains makes eating local in Alaska seemingly impossible.
But one small group of people set out to prove that was a myth and spent one year eating better than they ever had.
Planning and canning
Headed by Anchorage couple Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster, the Alaska Food Challenge was a loose collection of Anchorage residents who committed to eating only Alaskan food for one year. Each set up their own parameters. Oster, for example, allowed himself beer from local breweries even though the hops and other ingredients were not local. Esslinger accepted gifts of chocolate and butter on her birthday, and the couple took a vacation to Italy shortly after their first child was born.
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As expected, the Alaska Food Challenge came with some surprises and, fittingly, challenges. The first surprise was the sheer abundance of food available. Esslinger notes that that year was the healthiest she’d ever eaten. Alaska has excellent seafood, including salmon, halibut, crab and scallops, as well as game such as moose and caribou. The couple has a large urban garden, where they grew berries, salad greens, kale, turnips, tomatoes and more.
Chickens, for eggs and butchering, supplied more protein options, and the difficulty of butchering them surprised the couple. “It’s so much work,” Esslinger said. “The industrial system must cut so many corners to process so many.”
The local-eating year was full of discoveries such as that one — certain foods require large amounts of work. The couple realized that even though they had eaten mostly Alaskan before the food challenge, they were still out of touch with many of their food sources.
Other challenges included discovering the amount of planning required to eat locally for a year, as well as planning for a winter of eating. It is almost impossible to grow produce year-round in Alaska because of temperatures and severely limited daylight, and so the Esslinger-Osters harvested more than 1,600 pounds of produce from their garden. In turn, they had to process and preserve all those vegetables. They built a root cellar in their garage, experimented with fermenting and purchased a full-size freezer.
Part of the challenge was simply knowing how much food to put away. “Once you do it and you know how much you need, it’s much easier,” Esslinger said. “Harvest season was exhausting. Not only were we learning new skills like making butter, but we were also trying to put away everything for the wintertime.” Harvest season was a flurry of canning, drying and smoking, but once winter set in, they were able to “take a break and just cook and enjoy it all,” Esslinger said. They were surprised to find that they actually harvested too much food, including garbage bags full of kale.
Barley and wheat came from Delta Junction, about 300 miles north of Anchorage. They bought a mill for grinding the grains, and were able to bake bread all winter. A local creamery provided cream for butter, made in a Cuisinart, and a goat-milk share supplied milk.
The lack of fresh produce over the winter was difficult, Esslinger admits, but when they allowed themselves a salad on Oster’s birthday, they were disappointed by the limp, faded lettuce that had traveled thousands of miles to reach Alaska. Their diet remained varied, though they admit (somewhat guiltily) of tiring of salmon.
The lasting effects of eating local
Esslinger and Oster live in a suburban home on a corner lot, which they have converted into a massive garden. A partially-sunken greenhouse doubles as a chicken coop, and a beehive perches on their roof. They teach classes on urban chicken raising, soil maintenance and permaculture.
Though the food challenge is over, the couple still eats mostly local and organic. They have found that the food tastes better and that in all, the Alaska Food Challenge wasn’t as massive a challenge as even they believed.
However, Esslinger does admit to appreciating being able to buy organic butter at the store.
The garden at Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster’s Alaska home. Credit: Saskia Esslinger